Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan


When Roo was contemplating retirement seven years ago, we discussed what she wanted to do to fill all those hours that she had previously spent saving lives. She decided to volunteer at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB). She has maintained this activity, initially twice a week but latterly once a week, right up until lockdown. I guess that she is unlikely to resume this should we ever return to “normal”. She was born to give advice and, luckily, I am now the fortunate beneficiary of more wisdom from her than even I can manage. What was the advice about loading the dishwasher again?

I can only recall using CAB once before and it was primarily responsible for what some people might call a “career” in teaching. In the Summer of 1974 I had three months holiday between my Second and Third Years at Royal Holloway College. I went to the CAB in Sevenoaks and asked if there were any volunteering opportunities. They said they would get in touch. I heard nothing for a few weeks but when they phoned back and told me that they had something for me, my generous impulses had disappeared and I said that I needed a paid job and sorry to waste their time. I can clearly remember the bloke on the other end of the phone telling me that, it was okay, I would get paid and I replied “Where do I sign?” I was in the kitchen of my parents house and I can remember thinking what a funny person I was, responding so humorously. Oh well.

The job was to run one centre of the Sevenoaks Holiday Playscheme. There would be various volunteers to help but I was to organise it and take responsibility for the (approximately) thirty children aged between 5 and 11 that would attend for two hours in the morning and another two hours in the afternoon. I was to be paid £15 a week for three weeks. I’m sure there were background checks on my suitability for this work but I can’t remember any. I loved working with these children and organising the volunteers to help with painting, cooking, board games, rounders etc. This experience (which I repeated for the next three Summers) was a big influence on my decision to become a teacher.

The guy who was co-ordinating all four centres (of which mine was just one) was an ex public schoolboy called Vaughan. A nice guy in a rather upper class sort of way. We had a few pub sessions together and got on fine. Between first meeting him and the start of the Playscheme, I went on holiday and as I always did, I sent many of my friends a postcard. I can’t remember where I went on holiday but I do remember that I sent Vaughan a postcard and I also remember what I wrote.

Because I’m an annoying smartarse, I’ve always liked to do things that are equal parts annoying, funny and enigmatic. This is why I liked to send postcards with enigmatic messages. I hadn’t read “Brideshead Revisited” at this stage of my life but if I had I would have loved Sebastian’s postcard to Charles which simply said “Gravely injured. Come at once” when all he had done was bruise a toe. I decided to send Vaughan a postcard which said “Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues. You can tell by the way she smiles”. I didn’t sign the card. I had never discussed Bob Dylan with Vaughan let alone the lyrics to “Visions Of Johanna” but I thought this would be funny. After my holiday, we met up and he never thanked me for the card and I never mentioned it. I have no idea why I thought he would realise that it was me who sent the postcard. I wonder what he thought when he got the postcard? He must have been very confused. I wonder if he still puzzled over it?

By the way, as an aside, a lot of my friends like to respond in kind. Here is a selection of postcards I have received over the past few years. I have no idea who sent me the one about a helmet. Is it meant to be rude? Whose writing is that? The biter bit.

“Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues. You can tell by the way that she smiles”. This is from, possibly, my favourite Bob Dylan song, “Visions Of Johanna”. I have thirty one different performances of this song by Bob Dylan and they are all excellent. Eighteen of them are from the “Live 1966” box set which chronicles his controversial tour of that year. The concerts are remembered because of the poor reception given to the electric songs by a small but noisy minority of each audience. What can be overlooked is that each concert was in two sections and the first section contained seven songs sung solo without The Hawks (later The Band) providing, literally, an electrifying backing. These acoustic performances are remarkable including “She Belongs To Me”, “4th Time Around”, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, “Desolation Row”, “Just Like A Woman”, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Visions Of Johanna”. These concerts took place before the release of “Blonde On Blonde” so audiences must have thought that they were in wonderland when he started singing an eight minute song which started “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet”. The audience must have wondered if they would ever hear this song again. It was never ending. Verse upon verse. What did the words mean? How on earth did he remember all the words? Like all the best songs, its meaning is not entirely clear. As Andy Gill wrote, it is “forever teetering on the brink of lucidity, yet remaining impervious to strict decipherment”. It seems to be about the meeting of a group of friends including a girl named Louise for whom the singer has some feelings. However, the absent but perfect Johanna is more and more on his mind as the strange evening takes shape. Greil Marcus described “people wandering from one corner of a loft to another, doped, drunk, half-awake, fast asleep, no point to the next breath, let alone the next step.” I will never tire of this song and luckily I have thirty one versions to choose from.

“4th Time Around” bears some resemblance (melodically and lyrically) to “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and is equally enigmatic. I only have twenty two versions of this song. John Lennon was very confused by this song. At first, he thought it was an homage to his song. Subsequently, he thought it was just playful but later he worried about the final lines “I never asked for your crutch/Now don’t ask for mine”, thinking it was a warning from Bob Dylan not to attempt to emulate him.

“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” got to Number 7 in the UK singles charts in 1966. I was twelve years old. I liked it and loved its strangeness. It seemed a bit odd to have a song where everyone had stones thrown at them but I was used to “Yellow Submarine” and “I’m A Boy” so why not a song about throwing stones around. Quite why everybody had to have stones thrown at them seemed a bit of a mystery to me – I hoped nobody threw stones at me but those Second Year bullies were capable of anything. The ramshackle feel to the song was achieved by asking the musicians to play instruments that they were unfamiliar with. Guitarist Charlie McCoy switched from bass to trumpet. Drummer Kenny Buttrey played his bass with a mallet. Guitarist Wayne Moss played bass, bass guitarist Henry Strzelecki played organ and Al Kooper played a tambourine.

“Blonde On Blonde” is a double album, one of the first in popular music. The whole of Side Four is taken up with one song “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”. Bob Dylan spent hours in the studio completing the lyrics to this song before, at 4 a.m., he was ready to record. His backing musicians were all excellent Nashville session players and they recorded three complete takes of the song flawlessly. One of the musicians, drummer Kenny Buttrey has told a story whereby he claims that none of the musicians had any idea how long the song was and you can hear them building to a conclusion at the end of each verse, only for Bob Dylan to sing another verse. The box set “The Cutting Edge” shows that this story is not true as we can hear Take One of the song which is not the originally released version.

“I Want You” is a fantastic song and Bob Dylan has recorded it in many different forms. When he sung it in concert in 1978, it was slow, haunting and beautiful. The “Blonde On Blonde” version reached Number 16 in the UK Singles charts. There is an amazing cast of characters in the song including a guilty undertaker, a lonesome organ grinder, weeping fathers, mothers, sleeping saviours, the Queen of Spades and “a dancing child with his Chinese suit”. It has been speculated that the dancing child is Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. To back up this argument, it is pointed out that the singer took his flute because “time was on his side” which could be a reference to “Time Is On My Side”, a Rolling Stones song.

It is often forgotten how funny some of Bob Dylan’s songs are, especially during his 63-66 period. “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” is extraordinarily funny. There’s a line about how a leopard skin pilbox hat balances on her head just like “a mattress balances on a bottle of wine“. That’s brilliant. The song develops Lightning Hopkins’ song “Automobile Blues”.

“Just Like A Woman” is reputed to be about Edie Sedgwick, as is “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, “4th Time Around” as well as “Femme fatale” by The Velvet Underground. She was a member of Andy Warhol’s “superstars”. Van Morrison did a marvellous live version of this song in 1971 which is spoilt rather by him changing “What’s worse, is this pain in here” to “What’s worse, is this queer in here”. Unreconstructed Van. Today he has released three songs claiming Covid is a hoax made up to enslave the population. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

8 thoughts on “Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan

  1. OK, this record has suddenly – after over 50 years – made sense to me. Total genius. Not sure of its attitude to women or harmonica (always a bone of contention) but the sound, the lyrics and the sheer momentum – remarkable and one of the greatest albums ever.

    Liked by 1 person

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